Learning the lessons of a lucky escape
Mohammed Yassin, the chief executive of Daallo Airlines, talks to Martin Rivers about the bombing of Flight 159 in Mogadishu.
Somalia’s Daallo Airlines is intensifying security checks and tempering expansion plans as it recovers from a high-profile attack by Al Shabaab, the Al Qaeda-linked terror group.
One of the airline’s wet-leased Airbus A321s was struck by an on-board explosion 15 minutes into a flight from Mogadishu to Djibouti on February 2, blowing a hole in the fuselage and sending Abdullahi Borleh, the apparent suicide bomber, plummeting to his death. No-one else was killed.
Speaking in March, Mohammed Yassin, the Dubai-based chief executive of Daallo, confirmed that new measures have been introduced to mitigate the risk of further security breaches.
“This has been a wake-up call for us,” he said of the bombing, which appears to have involved a device embedded in a laptop. “Everything that we have previously taken for granted – not any more.
“We have to continuously improve the security situation and be proactive about it. [We have to consider] what could happen, where the threats may come from, how about [bombing attempts using] liquids, how about electronics? There are a lot of things now that everybody should look into.”
Although Al Shabaab has claimed responsibility for the attack, Yassin pointed to “ambiguity” about the “interlinking” between the perpetrators and the wider terror organisation.
“Still there are some doubts,” he said, when asked if it was possible that Syria-based Daesh – which has established a local affiliate in Somalia and is actively recruiting fighters from Al Shabaab’s ranks – may have been involved.
Yassin reiterated his claim that Borleh was most likely trying to target Turkish Airlines, which cancelled its Mogadishu-Djibouti service on the day of the incident – purportedly due to high winds. Daallo stepped in at the last minute to carry the flag-carrier’s stranded customers.
“If this passenger was on Turkish Airlines, he would have done the same [thing],” the airline boss said. “He had a Turkish Airlines boarding pass.”
In the aftermath of the attack, Vlatko Vodopivec, the Serbian captain of the stricken A321, complained to the Associated Press that security at Mogadishu Airport was “zero”.
Yassin rejected those remarks, stressing that “inside involvement” by at least one airport employee had allowed the bomber to bypass otherwise stringent security checks at the Somali gateway. “Somebody who was working at the airport was involved, and that’s what made it possible,” he insisted.
“Mogadishu Airport is a militarised airport, a highly fortified airport, so it’s not easy for somebody from outside to do such an action.”
In spite of their differing viewpoints, Yassin called Vodopivec a “hero” and said that Daallo “will try to keep him with us in the future”.
“That captain and his crew have done a fantastic job; he can be compared to the captain who landed the aircraft on the Hudson River,” Yassin said, referring to Chesley Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who saved 155 lives by crash-landing an A320 in the New York river in 2009.
Hermes Airlines, the Greek charter carrier that operated the bombed A321, has now suspended its wet-lease contract with Daallo.
In its place, another Greek wet-lease operator, Olympus Airways, is providing two AerCap-owned A321s – one to Daallo and one to its local equity partner, Jubba Airways.
The fleets of both Somali carriers are currently in flux, with Daallo temporarily wet-leasing an A320 from Aerovista, and Jubba in the process of withdrawing several Boeing 737 Classics.
Once the fleet changes have been finalised, Daallo will deploy one A321 and one BAe 146, while Jubba will deploy one A321, one A320 and one Fokker 50. The latter unit will eventually be replaced by a pair of ATR 72-500s, though Yassin said efforts to acquire the turboprops have taken longer than expected.
New routes to Addis Ababa and Entebbe are also still being pursued, albeit with security concerns slowing down the approval process.
Separately, Daallo and Jubba remain committed to regional consolidation under the umbrella of the Africa Aero Alliance. The holding company, announced last year, is exploring partnership opportunities in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Djibouti.
Before recruiting new members, though, Yassin wants to fully consummate the bipartite merger and “harmonise” the alliance’s strategic vision.
“When you are fighting with someone for so long, your paradigm and mental set-up is that you like [it] that way, you like to fight,” he admitted. “Telling the person that you have to disarm and we are friends, that takes time.
“I think by March next year the two companies will be fully merged and our vision of growing to the continent will start in a more speedy way.”